Sunscreen: What You Should Know, But Don’t
05.30.17

I didn’t start wearing sunscreen until a few years ago. As a kid, no one told me I had to wear it on a daily basis. My mom slathered me in it when we would go to the lake or to a summer baseball game, but I didn’t know it was something I needed to wear all the time. I thought that because I have tan skin already and don’t burn that the sun wasn’t causing significant damage.

Turns out, you do need to wear sunscreen every single day, even if it’s cloudy or rainy. The thing about sunscreen, though, is that it’s often sticky, greasy and leaves a white cast. In the pursuit of skin health, and with summer approaching, here’s everything to know about sunscreen — plus some of my favorite non-gross options.

Why we need it

Consistently going out in the sun without sunscreen can lead to premature aging, wrinkles and, worst of all, skin cancer. Sunscreen is the best anti-aging product out there, says board-certified dermatologist Rebecca Baxt. The sun emits two kinds of rays: UVA, which penetrate deep into the skin’s thickest layer, and UVB, which burn the superficial layers of the skin. (Indoor tanning beds and sun lamps can damage that can lead to skin cancer.)

“UVA in particular causes loss of collagen, which causes lines and wrinkles. UVA also causes hyperpigmentation,” she says. “UVA doesn’t usually burn people, so the effects creep up on you over time.”

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. More than 9,000 people are expected to die from it this year, according to the American Cancer Society. Studies have shown that the sun causes 90 percent of all nonmelanoma skin cancers and about 65 percent of all melanomas. Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer.

The good news: When used properly, sunscreen absorbs or blocks sun rays, reducing your risk of skin cancer.

Sunscreen types

Sunscreens are typically either physical or chemical. Physical sunscreens, also called mineral, block UVA and UVB rays, and include active ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Chemical sunscreens, which feature active ingredients like oxybenzone, avobenzone and PABA, absorb and reduce UV rays’ ability to penetrate the skin. Many sunscreens also use both physical and chemical actives.

“Both mineral and chemical work,” Baxt says. And they’re both perfectly safe and effective.

There are pros and cons to each. For example, physical sunscreens tend to leave a white residue (aka lifeguard nose) and they run off easier, but there is no wait time between application and safely going outdoors. Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, are generally colorless and less thick feeling, but can cause irritation or stinging and take about 20 minutes to start working.

What SPF means

SPF stands for sun protective factor, and the number refers to the amount of time you can stay in the sun without getting burned.

“An SPF of 30 means it will take you 30 times as long to burn as if you had not used sunscreen,” says Baxt. “It’s related to the UVB protection and not the UVA.” To put it another way, SPF 15 filters out about 93 percent of all incoming UVB rays, SPF 30 keeps out 97 percent and SPF 50 keeps out 98 percent.

Check the weather before leaving the house, says Lindsay C. Strowd, assistant professor of dermatology at Wake Forest Baptist Health. “Most weather apps have a UV index guide, which rates the strength of the UV radiation that day from a scale of 1-10, 10 being the most intense radiation,” she says. This can help you decide how strong of an SPF you might need on any given day.

What to look for in a sunscreen

Start with the basics for everyday use. “Look for at least SPF 30 or above and the words ‘broad spectrum,’” Baxt says. A broad-spectrum sunscreen protects you from both kinds of UV rays.

After that, think about your needs. If you’re working out or playing sports, find a water-resistant sunscreen. If you wear makeup every day, you might want a chemical sunscreen.

There are also sprays, powders, cushion compacts and moisturizers with SPF, but “I do not recommend sprays generally speaking,” says Baxt. Powders are good for limited use on the face, for example, but are not usually enough for long-term use or if you’re outside on a windy day at the beach.

Strowd recommends not relying on makeup, moisturizer or primer with SPF as your only sun protection, especially if you plan on being outdoors for more than one hour. “One has to be careful with makeup that advertises SPF. Oftentimes, people do not apply the product in thick enough amounts to get the actual level of advertised protection,” she says.

She also advises that you look for products designed for the face or that advertise “micronized” sunscreen ingredients, which tend to be less greasy and less likely to leave a white cast.

How to properly apply it

Don’t be shy with your sunscreen application. “Sunscreen should be used liberally and generously. Lots and lots of it,” Baxt says. This is important because sunscreen earns its SPF by being tested with a thicker application than most people apply, Strowd says.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends applying at least one ounce of liquid sunscreen, or about one shot-glass full, to the exposed areas of your body, and a nickel-sized amount to your face. When applying, make sure the sunscreen covers the entire surface of the skin.

“We must use sunblock on all sun-exposed surfaces, including ears, back of neck, chest, tops of shoulders and tops of feet,” Baxt says. “Those areas commonly get forgotten and burned.”

For sprays, use liberally once over exposed skin, and then spray a second time to ensure all skin is covered, Strowd says.

Sunscreen needs to be reapplied every one to two hours to work effectively and should be reapplied immediately after swimming or sweating.

My favorites

It’s a lot easier to wear sunscreen daily when you have products that you like to use.

For everyday, I love Dr. Jart+ Every Sun Day UV Sun Fluid Broad Spectrum SPF 30. It’s affordable ($34 for 3.4 ounces) and goes on clear. If you have oily skin, this formula might make your skin a little dewy, but it’s nothing a bit of powder won’t fix. My weekday morning routine also includes Lubriderm lotion with SPF 15 for my body.

For the most undetectable sunscreen, Japanese brands are the best. Biore Aqua Rich Watery Essence SPF 50+ and Shiseido Senka Mineral UV Gel are my favorites. They work well under makeup, go on clear and don’t get greasy. You can get these for about $10 on Amazon if you don’t mind the wait, but they’re one-ounce bottles, so stock up. A disclaimer: These tend to contain alcohol, so if you have extremely sensitive skin, you might want to skip this category.

Reapplication can be tricky, especially when wearing makeup. For touch-ups during the day, I rely onuse Mineral Fusion Mineral SPF 30 Brush-On Sun Defense, a colorless powder with a brush on one end. I don’t use this as my primary sunscreen, though, since I’m never sure if I’m applying the powder evenly. Peter Thomas Roth, Supergoop! and Colorescience also make powder sunscreens.

For days when I’m biking, camping or running, I slather La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Face & Body Melt-In Sunscreen Milk all over my face and body, and reapply with that or with Missha Around Safe Block Fresh Sun Stick SPF 50+ (Neutrogena also makes a stick that works well). I also always keep Banana Boat Sport Sunscreen Spray on hand for these situations.

I’m a stickler for sun protection now, and I’m constantly on the lookout for new-to-me formulas.

Remember that sunscreen is only one tool for sun protection, Strowd says. “Other sun protection tools include sun protective clothing such as long- sleeve shirts, wide-brimmed hats and long pants. Sunglasses are an important tool for protecting our eyes from UV radiation, which can lead to cataracts.”

What are your favorite sunscreens? What’s your best tip for reapplication?

Collages by Maria Jia Ling Pitt. 

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  • Jolie

    I love reading more about sunscreen, because even though it’s something I use everyday, I still don’t fully understand it. I’m also pretty bad at reapplying it throughout the day :/ I never knew about the Weather app’s UV Index, that’s so interesting (and definitely something I’ll be using from now on)!

  • nicolacash

    I love articles like this – I’m forever on a quest for the perfect sunscreen for me (I tried the Dr. Jart UV one and it gets way too greasy for my face.)

    • Court E. Thompson

      Ditto! The non-greasy quest is never-ending. I have combo skin and have been using Supergoop City Serum. So far so good, but the weather isn’t too humid yet. Time will tell!

    • Julissa

      Definitely try those Japanese brands, then! They are not greasy at all. Also, I got the new Drunk Elephant tinted sunscreen, just a couple of days ago, after I wrote this, and LOVE IT. It was SOOOO thick and almost greasy at first, but let it sink it for a few minutes, go about your day, and it dries down to a semi-matte finish.

  • One thing that I’ve been trying to be a lot more conscious of this year is the ingredients in the products I’m putting on my self- the skin is your largest organ, after all! I’ve been going through a major product purge via checking rankings on ewg.org. It’s a non-profit that, among other things, assesses and ranks the safety of of health and beauty products. While I wouldn’t take it as 100%, no-spin fact, I’ve found it’s a good baseline to at least get a feel for what I’m putting on my body/face every day. I’d definitely suggest checking out http://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/. I realized last month that the sunscreen I’ve used for years is full of stuff that at best has minimal testing and at worst is proven to disrupt the functioning of some people’s endocrine systems. I’ve switched to Beautycounter’s “Protect All Over” SPF 30, and I love it so far!

  • Kay Nguyen

    I haven’t heard about these brands before! I have done a post on my blog about my top 5 suncreams and I will have to try these out and possibly make another top 5! Thanks for sharing <3

    https://www.myblackcloset.com/

  • Adrianna

    I’ve been taught to rub in sunscreen until I stopped seeing white, but recently started doing the opposite. I’ll literally apply a semi-thick mask of sunscreen on my face and go about my morning until it absorbs. I feel a huge difference.

  • disqus_xeYXrRLiUI

    I highly recommend this sunblock from California Skin Institute. It’s silky smooth, lightweight, and doesn’t leave a white film. It’s a little pricey but in my opinion it’s worth it: https://californiaskininstitute.com/shop/spf/csi-sport-sunblock-spf-45/

  • Karin Connor

    Dont forget oxybenzone is implicated in several studies in killing coral!

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/28/sunscreen-damage-coral-research-oxybenzone

    So watch the ingredients if you are going into the ocean and you could argue we should stay away from it in general since it will make it’s way out to sea once it is washed off.😕
    However you will find it drasticly narrows the choices.

    • Jen

      I recommend non-chemical physical blocks with Zinc or Titanium oxide. They are thicker and leave more of a whitish cast, but I feel like they’re less abrasive to our bodies and the environment!

  • kay

    cannot say enough good things about innisfree eco safety sunblock. i wear the 50 in the summer and the 35 in the winter, the packaging looks exactly the same for both (and the waterproof version) and thats its only flaw imo. except for that the 50 does go on pretty white, but they also make a tinted version. which also has exactly the same packaging. it’s my holy grail though.

  • Diana C.

    I use TONY MOLY Sun Milk SPF47/PA++ and it’s so, so excellent. I apply it before makeup and it does not leave any kind of residue & did I mention that it’s excellent?

  • Bo

    Dermalogica SPF 50 solar defence booster, thank me later

  • I hate powder on my face, so I am trying to make these sunscreen makeup setting mists work as a reapplication solution. I have the Supergoop! one and I like it alright, but it smells like toothpaste. I got the new Kate Sommerville spray and that one gets so goopy around the nozzle and I think it irritates my eyes (which, if you’ve experienced chemical sunscreens in your eyes, you know this is the WORST). The Pixi Sun Mist is next on my list to try…this feels like a never ending quest.

  • icecream hangover

    Take one from us Aussies and get around Mecca Costmetica’s sun range http://www.mecca.com.au/skin-care/sun-protection/

    Thank me later

  • adela

    i love the shiseido urban environment oil-free sunscreen! it’s spf 42 and i chose it over the waterproof one in the blue bottle (because ~ urban environment ~ and i was interning in new york city that summer) and love it so much. it uses zinc, which is awesome, but does have alcohol in it (no biggie to me because my skin isn’t sensitive)

  • Maybe this is a dumb question, but since humans have only had access to sunscreen for, say 100(?) years, and the sun has always been there, is the ageing caused by the sun not just normal ageing, as opposed to ‘premature’ ageing? I know o-zone depletion is a thing, so maybe the sun’s effects are more harsh now than say in the 1700s, but surely as beings which naturally live above ground some element of sun damage and sun-induced ageing over time should be seen as normal? Obviously reducing cancer risk is important though and I get why people care about that.
    What I wore this week | Fashion, Feminism, Mirror Selfies

    • Duda Adc

      This made me smile because I prefer reading about the science behind SPF and the skin cancer prevention story even if I enjoy the vanity benefits that come along with it. But I think the what is normal has changed because increased pollution is also killing the planets ability to protect from the rays which results in skin cancer being on the up. Also, we should blame Madame Channel for making tan skin fashionable… So it’s more than just cosmetic, my grandad was super pale (so glad I didn’t pull his genes) and he got skin cancer even without being an outdoors person. In general I agree, there should be more focus on the skin cancer prevention.

      • That’s a good point about tanning! It didn’t occur to me because I have a standard pale and freckly English complexion so tanning is not even on my radar.

  • chouette

    Thanks for posting this! My old roommate passed away from skin cancer at the age of 34. It’s no joke. Make sure you wear sunscreen AND see your dermatologist regularly!

  • Meredith A.

    I’ve read a few health articles about certain brands of sunscreen actually having harmful ingredients that can be considered carcinogenic, such as brands like Banana Boat. I’m not sure if other people have heard of this, but it’s something I try to watch out for when buying products. Just food for thought.

    • Julissa

      Not sure which articles or data you’re referencing, but there’s a lot of misinformation about ingredients and “toxins.” I think consumers need to have a better understanding of that stuff in general, but ultimately, I trust the doctors and cancer-prevention groups that say sunscreen ingredients are safe to use.

      • Pamela S.

        I’m not so concerned about the “toxins”. What I’m concerned about is that many/most commercially available sunscreens contain oxybenzone, a known ingredient that kills the coral reefs. I get it. People like the convenience of a spray sunscreen or a lotion that goes on invisible, but our reefs are dying. Studies on my own, home island, are showing it over and over again.

        Use the convenient stuff for working in the yard, biking, hiking, running, anything that doesn’t include a dip in the ocean. When you go to the beach, switch it up to a barrier sunscreen that uses Zinc. Please.

  • Duda Adc

    My absolute favourite is Ultrasun SPF50 for sensitive skin (the one aimed at children) and have been using it for well over 10 years (I’m 39).
    Pros:
    1. That stuff works, my family makes fun of me when we go to the beach and I get back paler than I left hahaha. And I still have very nice skin.
    2. As an everyday sunscreen, it looks nice on my skin. On many occasions I have gotten compliments and asked what foundation I was using when all I had was this sunscreen.
    3. Good value for money, I get the 150ml for about £20. Great if like me you use in winter, like London winter.
    Cons:
    1. all I would say is that the white cast is there when you go to the beach and swim so I tend to use the spray version on the body for that reason.
    But I can’t recommend it strongly enough, I still make do with the white cast on my face and the stains on my clothes (I follow the rules and apply before leaving the house) because it’s worth it!

  • Laura S

    Glossier Invisible Shield is amazing!

  • Thanks for all these amazing tips! Since I’m Irish, I burn sooooo easily in the summer, and always have to wear SPF 50! It’s a real hassle, and I end up looking a like a ghost with all the sunscreen applications, since they’re all really really white! I will try some of the sunscreens you’ve mentioned.
    Meg @ its.meg-ramsay.com